Bartók: The Wooden Prince album review – very fine recording of rarely heard fairytale ballet

Bartók: The Wooden Prince album review – very fine recording of rarely heard fairytale ballet

Bartók revised his ‘pantomime ballet’ many times; the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra’s new disc is the first ever recording of its final version

First performed in 1917, the one-act “pantomime ballet” The Wooden Prince was the second of Bartók’s three stage works, but it has never achieved anything like the popularity of either Bluebeard’s Castle or The Miraculous Mandarin. With a heavily symbolic fairytale scenario by the author of the Bluebeard libretto, Béla Balázs, it requires the largest orchestra that Bartók ever used: quadruple woodwind and six percussionists. Perhaps that accounts in part for its rarity in the concert hall, even though some conductors, notably Pierre Boulez, programmed it regularly. But the music is curiously uneven. Some of the score seems to look back to earlier Bartók and to the roots of his style, the opening, for instance, inescapably recalls the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold, while elsewhere there are echoes of Strauss and Debussy – and in general it’s not as immediately striking as either Bluebeard or The Miraculous Mandarin, lacking the dramatic concentration of the opera and the lurid vividness of the ballet.

Though it also has some fine, typically Bartókian passages, the composer himself was unhappy with the work when it was first performed, and over the next 12 years continued to rewrite and cut the score. It’s the final revision that Thomas Dausgaard conducts, and extraordinarily this appears to be its first ever recording, about 13 minutes shorter than the original ballet. The performance may not be quite as vivid and detailed as Boulez’s recording of the 1917 score with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but, as in the other works on the disc – the Divertimento for string orchestra and the six Romanian Folk Dances – the playing of the BBC Scottish Orchestra is very fine in its own right.

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